|Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.|
Albert King and "Little" Milton
THE FEAR OF DEATH is, in actuality, a false fear.
For those of us who are religious-minded, there is no death.
What we call death is merely a means or a process or a point of transition
to some more profound, and thus more deeply desired, level of existence.
Ancient Egyptians believed those judged pure in death would arise anew,
in carefully-embalmed, newly-immortal bodies. Early Judeans, who also believed
in judgement and resurrection, expected their immortal souls to pass into
new, undefiled bodies. The last breath of the Hindu, finally freed of this
mortal plane, would be allowed to indistinguishably infuse with the infinite cosmos. Martyrs of Islam, their sins instantly expiated and their formal judgments waived, would immediately awaken in the Gardens of Earthly Delight. Good Christians, after orderly registering at the gate, would enter the kingdom
of Heaven to actually meet their maker and hobnob with angels amid soft
strains of Muzak.
Sweetening their existence in the afterlife would be
the knowledge that their enemies were receiving their just desserts,
infinitely harsher than those their enemies' lawyers had finagled them
out of in life. Impure Egyptians would be torn to pieces by the monster
Am-mit, the eater of the dead. Wayward Judeans were condemned to eternal
fire in Gehenna, a vast sleep-away torture camp. By contrast, a Hindu with
a karma heavy with sin faced earthly reincarnation and suffer, over and
again, and again and again, this messy business of mortality. The enemies
of Islam, their skins painfully regenerating after being repeatedly charbroiled
away, would endure perpetual consumption by the fires of Jihannum.
|Meanwhile, even the simplest of Christians could expect highwaymen and heretics alike to suffer whatever whims the hosts of Hell could conjure up for them and you can bet Old Scratch has Muzak piped in down there as well. Country singer Glen Campbell, in describing his attitude toward gossip columnists, best illustrated this sense of righteous satisfaction when he explained: "[I] leave the revenge to God, 'cause He can think of things I never could think of to make people miserable."|
"[I] leave the revenge to God, 'cause He can think of things
For those of us who are not religious-minded or otherwise
spiritually-inclined, death is merely a concept of nonexistence. Nonexistence
is the absence of experience and the absence of the capability to experience.
To readers of detective fiction, it is The Big Sleep, but a sleep without
dreams or wake-up calls. In such a state one cannot fret over the fact that
one is dead, or that one's body is slowly turning to dust, or that one's
spouse may be sleeping with one's neighbor. In fact, in such a state, one
cannot even be said to be one, period. To use a modern analogy: like the
contents of volatile random-access memory, or RAM, that is lost when a computer
is turned off or "crashes" (always taking with it that much-slaved-over thesis or business plan), one's total consciousness and being is irretrievably vanished, transforming one into a nonentity, an abstract nothingness, at best a mere memory in the mind of some other still-living being who, yet alas, is also doomed to die. And if thinking indicates being, to paraphrase Descartes' famous expression, then non-being prohibits thinking, and, in particular, prohibits fretting even needless fretting about the state of one's non-being.
So it seems that no one truly believes that they themselves
will be in a state of suffering once they are dead. Thus this fear of death
we all share cannot be the fear of being dead.
What most of us regard as the fear of death then is, in
actuality, the fear of dying.
The majority of us can look forward to dying in bed, either
at home or in a hospital, of either heart disease, cancer or a stroke, and their associated complications. In 1995, over 82% of all deaths in the U.S. (more than 1,536,900 Americans) were attributable to all forms of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, and cancer.
This site, however, is dedicated to that 5% minority that
died as a result of accident or perfidious design. Most of these unfortunates,
curiously, died at the hands of themselves. Some perished at the hands of
others at the hands of friends as often as those of foes. And many far too many, as you will see in varied articles scattered throughout this site died as a result of deficiencies or needless idiocies or simple criminal negligences that have become endemic to a particular social system, such as a poorly-regulated industry, a highly-bureaucratized military complex, or a rigidly-stratified social order.
As I have assembled this collection, a generalized theme that haunted the articles, beyond their immediate morbid titillation, began to make itself clear to me. Ultimately this collection, perhaps in as many ways as the number of stories that comprise it, is about the myriad ways death and dying affects all our lives more subtly in some ways than in others. At the same time, however, the wide range of subjects makes it difficult to draw any single conclusion or lesson from all the stories reproduced herein. Each story, like a fable, comes with its own moral. So I shall leave the moralizing up to you, the reader, since, as the saying goes, wise men never need advice and fools never heed it.
|When a man sees an animal dying, horror seizes him: substance similar to his own is perishing before his eyes, is ceasing to be. But when the dying creature is a human being, and a beloved one, over and above horror at the extinction of life there is a severance, spiritual wound, which like a physical wound is sometimes fatal, sometimes heals, but always aches and shrinks from any external chafing touch.|
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1864-1869
|No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved with mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.|
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624
I have always been affected when learning of another's
death, particularly when that death is the result of some folly that, with
a little forethought, might have been easily averted. I find myself possessed
by what might have been the victim's last dashing thoughts and emotions:
the sudden, crystal realization; the crushing, paralyzing panic; the bitter,
damning self-loathing; the final, futile protest; and, if the dying was
painful, the incommunicatible and incomprehensible suffering. That chafing,
that tolling, though lasting hardly a moment, passing through me with a
just perceptible shudder, is enough to remind me, through vicarious experience,
of my own dwindling mortality. I do not believe that I am alone in this
I have been collecting articles on bizarre deaths since
college. But the idea of compiling my collection into a single worksite came
to me only in 1989, and rather spontaneously. That fall I began actively
looking for articles instead of haphazardly coming upon them as I had been
doing over the years. Initially I intended to include only the most humorous
articles, those that illustrated the results of folly, but, after finding
so many equally absurd stories of murder for the pettiest of reasons, and
so many other stories of such needless tragedy, I saw no reason not to include
these as well.
Some passages, therefore, are not for the squeamish. And
I would not recommend the chapter on murder to those plagued by doubts on
the noble nature of man or the worth he places on the lives of his brothers
At the outset I had also intended to report these stories
in my own words. But it occurred to me that, due to the unusual nature of
many of the articles, credibility would implicitly become an issue. Though
I doubt anyone would bother to take me to court for fraud, a few of these
stories are simply hard to believe. Not wishing to produce a novelty that the
reader might toss off as a collection of urban legends, I decided not to
retell the stories myself, but to simply reproduce the actual news articles
that appeared in print. For stories about historic figures I would tap the
investigative skills of modern historians. But credibility was not the only
reason I chose to reprint these sources. Along with that greater measure
of authenticity a newspaper article lends to each story, there is also a
certain sense of immediacy that the words "died yesterday" unmistakably contribute.
When I began my research, I first surveyed similar
sources on the subject of unusual deaths, to make certain that I would not
be turning tired ground. In fact I unearthed very few books, whose authors
invariably concentrated on the deaths of famous and influential people,
few of whom died very remarkably. It was their names, and not the manners
of their deaths that had made these people noteworthy. Here the perspective would be different. On this site the famous would occupy only a small section. The majority would otherwise be devoted to those unfortunate souls who might never have become, if not famous, then hardly noticed at all, were it not for the bizarre manners of their departures.
This site therefore, appropriately, in the time-honored tradition of the Grim Reaper himself, makes no distinctions between great and small, rich and poor, or sinner and saint. Names are unimportant. Titles are trivial. Bank accounts are of no account. On this site the one thing that is of importance is the Reaper's boundless creativity, which he has demonstrated to us almost every day our lives, in the routine execution of his unending bleak task.